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26 Tips for Succeeding in Business School

Nov 5, 2019
More than two dozen of Vanderbilt Business School’s faculty and staff tell current and prospective students what they need to know about making the most of b-school

With both application season and the academic year in full swing, we reached out to the faculty and staff of the Vanderbilt Business School to find out what students should know about thriving at b-school. Their advice draws on dozens of years of experience and touches all areas of business school, from studying the smart way to building relationships with fellow classmates. Without further ado, here are 26 pieces of advice for succeeding in b-school:

Cherrie Wilkerson, Assistant Dean, Young Professionals Programs
“Successful students are those that know WHY they are coming to business school. Students with a clear vision stay focused on their goals and work hard every day to achieve them. It’s not enough to be smart to succeed. Hard work is inevitable. Result: success.”

Emily Anderson, Senior Director, Career Management Center
“To get the most out of the business school experience, you have to dive in and be ready to be pushed out of your comfort zone at times. There are so many ways to grow professionally and personally, but you have to take advantage of the opportunities, resources, and connections and be ready to learn.”

Tim Vogus, Brownlee O. Currey, Jr. Professor of Management
“I think success in business school requires discipline, flexibility, and a growth mindset. The discipline is evident when looking at the best students. They treat business school like a job. That means they’re actively engaged in the courses rather than being passive recipients. That active engagement takes the form of taking interpersonal risks in class (e.g., being willing to share failures or struggles as well as successes) and taking initiative customizing the material to your professional goals (i.e., actively applying the material). Flexibility entails acting appreciatively toward others (peers, professors, and staff); seeking to understand and learn from them even if they have different styles. A growth mindset means challenging yourself inside and outside the classroom while also having the humility to ask for help, ask questions, and speak up all in the pursuit of deeper and more lasting learning. If you embrace discipline, flexibility, and a growth mindset, you’re well on your way to optimizing business school.”

Bailey McChesney, Senior Associate Director, MBA Admissions
“While attending b-school, you will have a number of competing priorities: the career search, class, leadership development opportunities, clubs, making friends, etc. It is essential that you have the skills to prioritize what’s important to you and manage your time effectively. It sounds so simple but time management is one of the most important skills needed to thrive in business school (and after!).”

Sue Oldham, Associate Dean, MBA Operations
“1) Don’t discount a single person in your class. 2) When in doubt, give someone the benefit of the doubt. 3) Be nice.”

Consuela Knox, Director, Data Analytics and Reporting     
“Resilience is important to thriving in business school, and in life. You face new challenges almost daily. You have to be able to recover quickly from disappointments and other difficult circumstances. If challenges do not immediately yield the results for which you had hoped, learn from these experiences with gratitude. There is always tomorrow to implement new learnings and yield outcomes that are more favorable. Often the greater the risk, the greater the reward.”

Jessica Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Management
“Business school gives you a chance to re-chart the course of your career. People succeed here when they are curious, self-directed, and proactive. The resources here are excellent, and the hardest decisions address how to invest your precious time when there are so many valuable ways to spend it. That is why listening to your curiosity is so important.”

Betsy Karounos, Senior Associate Director, Academic Programming
“My top three skills are time management, openness to advice and critique, and investment in the entire community: peers, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

Lacy Nelson, Senior Associate Director, Alumni and Executive Career Management
“I believe that building authentic relationships among your fellow students, professors, and staff will serve you well not only as a student but also as an alum. Being in business requires trust, collaboration, and connections. Successful students are trustworthy collaborators. How do you want people to remember you after you leave Owen?”

Nancy Abbott, Adjunct Professor of Management
“Don’t go it alone. Your fellow students will be an invaluable resource for you. Be a great team member…do your share and also benefit from the unique skills of your teammates.”

Jeri West, Assistant Director, International Student Life
“Willingness to ask for help, build a social network for support and friendship, adjust when things don’t go as planned. Remember that no matter what happens, you’re still the same accomplished, talented ‘you’ that came into the program, and you’ll figure out what’s next.”

Sylvia Boyd, Director, Alumni Career Management and Employer Relations
“In my 25 plus years of watching students during their two years, it appears that the most successful ones walk in the door with a semi-empty canvas, ready to absorb, explore, and participate. From the start, getting to know their classmates and interacting with them in the form of networking. Not looking at their classmates of what their potential and future might hold but based on their past and current standing. Also, balancing between the required and the desired and ready to stretch beyond their comfort zones. Because I have been around for so long, I often encourage students to start early in thinking of themselves as alumni and learning what it takes to be a good alum by looking at the profiles of those who preceded them and finding ways to engage, connect, and network with them before graduating.”

Hunter Land, Assistant Professor of Accounting
“The business school calendar is short, and time moves quickly. Make sure that you dedicate time towards achieving your goals, whatever those may be. Good time management skills will help you to invest your time, not spend it.”

Sandy Kinnett, Senior Associate Director, Career Management Center Coach
“Being adaptable, tenacious, and driven is important, and so is being able to work with others and jumping right in and doing the work. Know when to lead and when to be the best team member you can be. Finally, have humble confidence.”

Juli Bennett, Executive Director, Executive MBA Programs
“Students who are most successful are those who are very intentional and learn from others. They truly learn to collaborate in a way that leverages diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking. The outcomes of teams that leverage their differences cannot be matched.”

Maura Clark, Director of Admissions, MS Finance Program
“Vanderbilt Business students need to have hustle and be humble! Our students work harder than others, and it pays off. Be flexible to new places, ideas, and people — this will take you far!”

Liz Scowden, Assistant Director, Academic Advising
“One of the most important skills it takes to succeed in b-school is the ability to prioritize. Being on the academic advising side, I see students struggle in Mod I, and the most successful ones are those who know right out of the gate the importance of getting some things done and letting some things go. Mod I is more about prioritizing what to let go than balance. It’s a good lesson for the real work world!”

Melinda Allen, Executive Director, Leadership Development Programs
“There are many skills that will help you succeed in business school and many ways to approach your experience. My advice would be to approach business school with an openness to new experiences and perspectives, a desire to learn about all things — whether or not related to your desired career path — and a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone and take risks. These things will allow you to best maximize your business school experience and grow personally and professionally while here.”

Erick M. Mas, Postdoctoral Fellow, Marketing
“To succeed in business school, it takes curiosity. The goal of a business degree is to teach students how provide viable solutions that address managerial problems. But you cannot offer proper solutions to a problem you to not understand! A healthy level of intellectual curiosity is what you need to completely understand the multifaceted problems you will encounter in the business world — and in business school — and find the best solution.”

Stella Vazna, Senior Financial Analyst
“Time management is crucial to succeeding in business school. Balancing schoolwork with professional careers and family lives may seem daunting, but early planning can be a lifesaver. To-do lists, coordination with other C-team members, and early starts on assignments can make a tremendous difference.”

Kim Killingsworth, Director, International Recruiting and Relations
“Besides the hard skills that one brings and will be able to develop on a deeper level in the program, I consider one’s EQ (emotional quotient) very important. Being able to effectively and persuasively communicate and interact with others makes all the difference, especially with all the networking involved in the job search. I recommend that non-native speakers of English put themselves in work situations in which they practice these skills in English before embarking on the MBA. In the program, all will have the opportunity to further develop these skills through the MBA’s Communications Academy.”

Rob Schickler, Associate Director, Recruiting & Admissions
“Don’t just hang out with people who look like or have similar backgrounds to you. B-school will provide the opportunity to build relationships with people from all over the country and around the world who have worked in fascinating jobs who you would never have the chance to meet otherwise. Get to know as many classmates as you can, learn from their experiences, and share life with them for two years. That’s the best part of business school!”

Sarah Rigsby, Assistant Director, Student Life
“From a Student Life perspective, the students who are successful in business school are selective in the activities, clubs, case competitions, etc., that they choose to be involved in. Being involved is very important, but if you are stretched too thin, you won’t be able to devote enough time to the things that you are really passionate about. Finding a balance between academics and everything outside of the classroom is key.”

Heather Yockey, Associate Director, Employer Relations & Recruiting
“You need self-aware confidence to eagerly step into ambiguity and openly explore. Willingly pivot and adjust your sails throughout the journey. Steep yourself in a network that will far outlast the first role you gain out of business school.”

Jennifer Escalas, Professor of Marketing
“For those who are naturally shy, be brave and speak up in class! Just because someone else talks all the time doesn’t mean they are the smartest person in the room. I encourage everyone to participate.”

Kimberly Pace, Professor for the Practice of Communication
“1. Positive Attitude: I’m a firm believer that optimism makes you avoid unneeded stress and negative thinking. A positive attitude sees business school as an adventure and looks forward to the daily challenges. 2. Appreciative Inquiry: When you receive feedback, always be open to understanding ‘why’ without judgment. Stay curious longer. Ask good questions and listen deeply. 3. Disciplined Time Management: The Mod schedule is fast. Scheduling helps you to complete homework, prep for exams, attend classes, search for an internship, sleep, exercise, eat healthy, and make friends for life.”

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